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One Year Into the Pandemic. Where Are We Now?

April 22, 2021

By Trisha Wiggin-Fausnaugh, Director of Shared Branch Operations and Training

It’s been a little over a year since the COVID 19 pandemic drop-kicked credit unions’ 2020 plans out the window and made them re-evaluate many areas of their business. I’ve spoken to many credit unions about the challenges and solutions that came out of 2020. Here’s what I found out.

Drive-thru Banking Turned Out to be a Star.

Considered by some to be rather lowly and old-fashioned, drive-thru banking became much more important for credit unions during 2020 as the drive-thru was a means to assist members in person without direct contact. Credit unions quickly found innovative ways to streamline drive-thru transactions and to offer services, such as opening new accounts, at the drive-thru.

Credit unions without a drive-thru had a much more difficult time serving members. Depending on the state, some were forced to close their branches completely or severely limit the number of members they could assist at one time. Those participating in shared branching relied on their fellow credit unions to help, which added to the volume those credit unions saw. The compassion and collaboration so many of those acquirers showed was inspiring.

As lobbies began to open, many of the additional services that had temporarily been available at the drive thru moved back into the branch, but drive-thru service continues to be popular with members.

And Speaking of Lobbies…

Some credit unions, especially those who serve the underserved, could not rely on drive-thru service. Many of their members and shared branch members do not have vehicles and instead arrive at the branch on foot or via public transportation. Many low-income members do not own computers or smart phones and do not have easy access to the internet. These members rely on their credit union or a shared branch to access their funds, make deposits and loan payments, and withdraw checks to pay their rent and other expenses.

But a large number of credit unions did close their lobbies to members and guest members, particularly in March and April, and relied on drive-thru service.

As the year progressed branches began to open, usually limiting the number of members allowed inside at time and/or requiring appointments.

This year, we’re seeing the last of the closed branches opening or planning to open soon. Credit unions with limitations are expected to ease or eliminate them as the year continues.

Electronic Banking became a Focus.

Talk to almost any credit union executive and they will tell you that during 2020 they put an emphasis on moving members toward using electronic transactions. In an April 8, 2021 article in the CU Times, authors Peter Stozniak and Jimm DuPlessis shared that home banking enrollments rose significantly in 2020 compared to 2019. They also revealed that while some credit unions saw substantial increases in online banking and membership, other credit unions, especially those with assets of $10 million to less than $500 million saw declines in web users and members.

There could be any number of reasons why some credit unions were less successful at moving members to electronic banking, such as product availability, member awareness, ease of enrollment, and ease of use. Credit unions who did not already have robust home banking and phone banking options were at a disadvantage.

Also, some members that just aren’t ready or able to make the jump from in-person service. While some are reluctant for personal reasons, others don’t have consistent access to the internet. However, this is a relatively small percentage of the population.

Enrollment and usage of electronic access is expected to increase this year as members become more comfortable with the technology and credit unions continue to improve their offerings.

Credit Unions Embraced Telecommuting.

Allowing employees to work from home is not new, but until 2020, it was relatively rare for credit unions. Almost overnight there was a need to limit the number of employees in the credit union office. Employees with small or school-aged children were suddenly left with no daycare options and couldn’t come to work. And everyone was encouraged to self-isolate as much as possible. Having a remote workforce went from a “maybe someday” to “we need this now.”

Challenges included obtaining, preparing, and distributing laptop computers and other equipment, educating staff on remote access software, helping supervisors manage employees from a distance, and, most importantly, keeping member data safe and secure. While the decision about which departments would work remotely varied by credit union, typical departments included Call/Contact Center, Accounting, Lending, Collections, Marketing, Training, HR, and IT.

So, how did it go? Though there were challenges, most of the credit unions I’ve spoken to felt things eventually went smoothly. Some said it worked better than expected.

And how did the employees feel about telecommuting? Some employees said they enjoy working from home and appreciate the lack of commute or the solitude. But working from home isn’t for everybody. Many missed the camaraderie of the workplace or the convenience of having all they need at hand. Some do not live in a place that’s conducive to working at home because of space, noise or privacy. A friend of mine, who has pleasant home environment and liked working at home at first, put it like this, “Get me out of this house!”

Credit unions have started to bring employees back to their offices, though many are planning to continue allowing some employees or departments to work remotely. Hybrid solutions – such as rotating staff office so only a few from a department are in the office at one time – are being tested. As time goes on and restrictions are lifted, credit unions will continue to evaluate the value of a remote workforce.

What’s Next?

The challenges for credit unions in 2020 were extreme and sudden. Credit unions did an admirable job of facing and overcoming closures, increasing safety requirements, surmounting technological needs, and working through employee issues.

Now, as we go into the 2nd year of the pandemic, with the increased availability of vaccines and the continued (though sometimes sporadic) easing of restrictions, there is less urgency for making big changes. it will be interesting to see how credit unions evolve. What decisions will be made based on the experiences of 2020? What will the “new normal” for credit unions be?

I can hardly wait to find out.


Trisha Wiggin-FausnaughTrisha Wiggin Fausnaugh has worked in credit unions since 1981, starting as a teller and eventually working in almost every area including loans and collections, marketing, IT, product development, and even facilities management. As the VP of Operations, she started working with shared branching in 1994 when the credit union she was working for became a participant. Trisha believes that there is no better example of the credit union cooperative spirit than shared branching, and she loves supporting her credit union clients as their primary shared branching contact.

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